Monday, March 31, 2014

The Neuroscience of Poverty: Explaining poor kids’ poor grades

Duke researchers, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association a decade ago, established the causal link between poverty and poor academic achievement in school-aged children. Truthout editors Christian Exoo and Calvin Exoo, in their blog post, describe the study which followed 1200 school-aged kids for 8 years. The children were categorized as a) never poor, b) persistently poor, or c) ex-poor (children from families that experienced a modest increase in income during the course of the study). The study’s conclusion? The "results support a social causation explanation for conduct and oppositional disorder.”

In other words, the neural disorders brought on by food and housing insecurity produce a traumatic state often interpreted as ADHD. The chart below tracks both poverty levels and poor academic performance for each of Monroe County’s 19 school districts. Poverty is measured by the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in 2012 and the academic performance is measured by the number of students not proficient in state standards as measured by 2012 state tests.

Poverty = % of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in 2012
Poor Performance = % percent of students scoring 1 or 2 on third grade ELA exam for 20121
Source: NYS Ed. Dept. report cards:
  % free or reduced lunch
  % not proficient
East Irondequoit
East Rochester
Honeoye Falls Lima
Rush Henrietta
West Irondequoit
Wheatland Chili

There is a definite correlation between the percentage of students who are poor and the students who are not achieving. Still, a mere correlation does not mean that poverty causes poor academic achievement …unless you have data to make that causal connection – which is the connection made in the Duke study. Combine this research with that presented in Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, Gerald Grant’s study of poverty and academic achievement, and you have a mandate for change. Grant shows that when poor children are placed in schools where less than 40% of students are poor, affluent children’s performance does not suffer and poor children’s performance improves substantially.

Here is the take away: Every district has an interest in decreasing the number of students living in poverty. 

In a community like Rochester (and Raleigh) where long-term regional viability depends on a healthy inner core, we have every reason to get creative about mitigating the effects of poverty on education. In addition to the economic incentive, we have a moral imperative here. Leaving behind the 24,000 city children who will not get into charters, particularly when we understand the connection between poverty and education, is unacceptable.

 If I knew 3 of my 4 children would excel and one would not because of a preventable condition, you bet the focus of my attention would be on that fourth child. It is in the interest of three who excel that they understand we need to mitigate preventable harm.

In the words of the authors Exoo:

If you'd rather teach a man to fish than give him one, then by all means allow him the capacity to learn.”

©Elizabeth Laidlaw

1 My gratitude to Edward J. Doherty for sharing the idea of charting this connection.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Send a letter to the School Board

           Before we spend one dollar on non-essential items (window shades or buses that still run), 
we must spend money on social workers.

I have the privilege to work with tutors from 10  urban Presbyterian churches. They are parents,  teachers, retired psychologists and counselors, some of whom have been tutoring in Rochester City school buildings for over 25 years. We observed over the past year that many students in each classroom are in a state of constant trauma. We researched trauma and learned through neuroscience that learning cannot happen in a traumatized brain because it thinks about fighting, fleeing or freezing.

In order to learn, traumatized students must be counseled to restore their ability to learn. City School teachers are AMAZING professionals who were hired to teach, not to counsel. So teachers must be trained in how to restore the traumatized child’s brain. 

Social workers are most effective in counseling students and training teachers to restore traumatized brains. Currently the City School District does not have enough social workers to go around.
We asking the school board to restore and augment budget lines for social workers in the 2014-2015 budget so that each school building has at minimum a full-time social worker devoted to it.

We want the School Board, while constructing the budget, to remember that 
people are more important than things.

Before we spend one dollar on non-essential material items (window shades and buses that still run), we must spend money on social workers.

Please sign this letter to the Board and send it here or here to insure that the School Board reads it.

©Elizabeth Laidlaw

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Math+Love = More Connection, Less Violence


As we ponder how to include more social workers into the lives of children in the City School District, I am reminded of this recent post from Glennon Doyle Melton about the importance of intentional love in the classroom.

Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that We Belong to Each Other.” 

According to Doyle, "If we find peace ... it’s because we remember."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In Praise and Need of Social Workers

A group of tutors from ten urban Presbyterian congregations got together this fall to determine the most urgent need in the Rochester City School District.  Some of us have been volunteering each week in school buildings for more than a decade. As we surveyed our experiences this fall, one theme dominated our conversation; the district is living in at state of perpetual trauma. With the help of RCSD social workers, we learned that whether the trauma is due to food or housing insecurities or abuse at home, students in this heightened state of “fight or flight” are unable to learn until the neuro-effects of the trauma are stabilized.  Those students who choose the “fight” option at school traumatize their classmates through their outbursts, expletives, bullying, and physical violence. Often, our tutoring time is spent to calming students down to a state where learning is possible.
In addition, teachers are traumatized—particularly those new hires who bounded into the classroom in September, full of energy and ideas. By October, their enthusiasm turned to anger as they realized that, no matter how well they teach or how many hours they spend prepping classes, they have been labeled failures by the state simply because their students are not showing up to school. Principals have not escaped the cycle of trauma, as they live with the uncertainty of the revolving series of building closures and openings. It is impossible to build community in this highly charged environment.
We volunteers can collect food for hungry students, we can provide housing to homeless families, but what might we be able to do about this most immediate need to heal school buildings of the effects of trauma? While our tutors can provide some balm to individual children, we seem powerless to restore buildings to places where students can learn.
School social workers are essential to this restoration. As it stands most buildings share a school social worker with another building, resulting in two under served communities. By restoring the ten social worker positions that were cut from this year’s budget and augmenting that number to fully staff each building with a full-time social worker, we can begin to heal the learning environment.
Why social workers?
The school social worker is the point person for taking in material donations of food and clothing and for distributing these things to the children who most need them. The school social worker has access to housing options for homeless students. RCSD’s director of homeless services reports that in each of the last two years, 2000 students were homeless for some part of the school year—and that number increases each year. Most importantly, the school social worker knows mental health first aid and can train principals and teachers how best to help the traumatized student move from the fight or flight stage to a place where learning is possible.
My hope is that RCSD's school board increases funding for school social workers in the 2014-2015 budget so that each school building is staffed with a full-time social worker....Then we will maximize healing and learning. Without the healing, there is precious little learning.

School-based Social Work Interventions: A Cross-National Systematic Review. Social Work, 00378046, July 1, 2013, Vol. 58, Issue 3 
by By Paula Allen-Meares; Katherine L. Montgomery and Johnny S. Kim

... Social workers are uniquely equipped to intervene with at-risk youths in the school settings, because the field of social work emphasizes training and understanding of youths who are affected by severe poverty, abuse, neglect, and disabilities (see Allen-Meares, 2010).
...Social workers are uniquely equipped to intervene with at-risk youths in the school settings, because the field of social work emphasizes training and understanding of youths who are affected by severe poverty, abuse, neglect, and disabilities (see Allen-Meares, 2010). This review is (to our knowledge) the first of its kind to offer a review of empirical evidence of school-based social work interventions from international studies. Mirroring the social work profession, studies in this review targeted a variety of outcomes relevant to intervention with youths. Additional research is needed with larger sample sizes, replicated studies, longer follow-ups, and more rigorous treatment designs to establish the efficacy of school-based social 'work interventions. More research is also needed to assess programs outside of the United States. Because countries differ substantially with regard to the cultural 

...The purpose of this systematic review was to investigate the treatment effects of tier 1 and tier 2 school-based social work interventions from the United States and abroad. The results of the review indicate that social workers have become increasingly involved in administering interventions that reveal promising empirical support with a variety of outcomes and populations.

©Elizabeth Laidlaw

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Is Water

"The most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about."  Here is David Foster Wallace's gift to the planet.

This Is Water  

(click here)

Give yourself the gift of 9 minutes to watch it. Hearing him give this short address will add richness to your day/week/year.

Merry Christmas!

© Elizabeth Laidlaw 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The ONE thing you can do THIS WEEK for our children

Maggie is balancing the county budget on the backs of Monroe County’s children and families.

Poverty, violence, inability to learn…these are rooted in young families not being able to afford child care. You can make a positive impact correcting our societal ills by joining me in urging the County Legislature to restore and increase funding for child care subsidies, and to fully re-instate the evidence-based Parents as Teachers program in the County budget. 

Show up Thursday, Dec. 5 at 5:30 pm in the County Legislature Chambers, on the 4th floor of the county office building (
39 W Main).

You don’t need to speak before the county legislature. Your presence will help sway our representatives to vote for children during the budget vote Tuesday, Dec. 10.

The folks at The Children’s Agenda keep track of key statistics regarding our children. Reading their recent reports you’ll learn that in the developed world, 48 countries do a better job of preventing infant deaths than we do, that the U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and children in poverty and of children who are abused. An appropriately directed federal budget (favoring children rather than tax cuts) could have a dramatic positive effect on these numbers.

Here in Monroe County the past ten years have brought an increase in child poverty and child abuse and a decrease in readiness to learn. 55% of children in the city and a startling 25% county-wide are economically vulnerable. These are real children. Every other child you see as you travel in the city and every third child in our inner ring suburbs are living a quality of life below children in most of the developed nations.

In addition, our fiscal choices are leaving children in poor quality care. Because of cuts our legislators chose, half the number of families who received daycare subsidies in the year 2000 are receiving these subsidies today. With 5000 families on the waiting list, too many children are left in the care of not-old-enough siblings or the neighbor down the street while their parents are working.

The Children’s Agenda researchers inform us that for every dollar not spent on a child during that critical time of brain growth (0-5 years), we will be spending $10 for medical care and/or incarceration when she is a teenager.

While it is comforting to think that the United Way or the YMCA can take care of vulnerable children’s needs, they can’t. The County of Monroe spends 35 times more on services than these organizations do. An appropriately directed county budget will make a difference in the lives of children and families.

No, we have not made our children a fiscal priority … but we can. Join me Thursday at 5:30 at the County Legislature and implore them to solve our economic woes in a way that puts the needs of children first. While you are at it, email your county legislators and Maggie Brooks that a right-sized budget is one that puts children’s needs first.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gaffigan: A Great Holiday Gift

Combine 1 very funny man with 1 extremely talented writing partner/wife, 5 kids (and counting),

and 1 two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and you get one very funny chronicle of parenting.

These  62 bite-size essays will have you rolling.

Bathroom reading for 2 months!

Literally Laughed Out loud

--just reading the forward.

Want to brighten the lives of the over-stressed parents in your life?

Dad Is Fat  is the ideal gift for any parent who can read.

Get it at Indiebound.

Or the library.